When to Worry About Test Anxiety

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It's testing time! Whether it is sophomores looking to get a head start on the obtaining college ready scores for dual enrollment, summer programs, or to practice;  juniors who are starting to think seriously about the college admission process and are ready to tackle the ACT/ SAT; or a few seniors who trying to reach their score goal by graduation for scholarships or even college admissions, it is one of the busiest times for ACT and SAT tests now. That does not even include all the state testing we have here in the state of Florida, including the FSA Reading & Writing, Algebra I, Geometry, US History, Biology, and a host of other final exams and tests. Our students are BOMBARDED with tests in school. We have created a one-size-fits-all method for our educational system, and students need to, unfortunately, conform to the culture that has been created

In the Post 1 of Tips to Excel with Test Anxiety, we looked at ways to reduce test anxiety. However, even after preparing and incorporating different study tips, some students still have test anxiety and perform poorly. So as parents and students:

When should we start worrying about test anxiety?

When do we stop saying, "She/ he is just a bad test taker" and find the underlying issue?

I recently worked with a student who had great grades and took advanced coursework. However, her ACT scores continued to come back extremely low. Being new to the school, I asked her some pointed questions about her study habits, which she stated where highlighting key areas, reading out loud, drawing, pacing the room, and so forth. These worked when teachers let her do these things, however, in a standardized test with no talking, timed, and none of her essential "test-taking strategies" at play, she faltered. As she was reading off how she learns best, I asked if she had ever been tested for dyslexia- "No" a quizzical mother and daughter looked at me. "I am not saying you do, but something is a miss here and you may want to check more into it." The next day, they were back in my office, eyes wide and stated, "We looked at all the websites we could find, and all the checklists came back I might have dyslexia." The mother was mortified she missed something; the daughter just grateful to know the issue. Two psychologists later, and the diagnosis confirmed what we all suspected. 

So how did this 18 year old, good student, get all the way through her K-12 education, be successful, yet, no one caught she might have a learning disability?

Simply- she was smart enough to figure out some of the strategies that worked for her, but in an environment that stripped away these mechanisms it became apparent there were other issues, in this case a learning disability. 

While your student may perform well in the class, if test anxiety continues to be an issue and the student is not functioning at the level they should or could, it may be time to look into it being a learning disability or an anxiety that it is so severe it needs intervention. Either way more needs to be done if the student is not meeting their full potential. 

Fortunately today there are countless resources and stories of extremely successful adults that have overcame learning disabilities; Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Airlines), Peter Kight (CEO of Checkfree), Charles Schwab (CEO of Schwab), Ingvr Kamprad (Founder of IKEA), and Steve Jobs (Found of Apple) and many more. The stigma is being taken away and people are finding real solutions.

So what could be an underlying issue? While not an exhaustive list here are some possibilities from a Psychology Today article :

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1. Dsylexia- is a reading and language-based learning disability. With this problem, a child may not understand letters, groups of letters, sentences, or paragraphs. These are not vision problems, rather they are problems with how the brain interprets the information it "sees. Here are two great articles connecting test anxiety and dyslexia and here

2. Dysgraphia- is a term for problems with writing. An older child may not form letters correctly and have difficulty writing within a certain space. Writing neatly takes time and effort; yet despite the extra effort, the handwriting still may be hard to read. A teacher may say that a learning-disabled student can't finish written tests and assignments on time, and supervisors may find that written tasks are always late or incomplete.

3. Dyscalculiais a term for problems concerning math. A child may do well in history and language, but fail tests involving fractions and percentages. Math is difficult for many students, but those with dyscalculia may have much more difficulty than others their age. Dyscalculia may prevent your child from solving basic math problems that others the same age complete with no difficulty. Here is a great article explaining the difference between test anxiety and dyscalculia

What to do

This a great comprehensive list of what to do if you suspect there is an issue from Understood.org:

  • If you suspect a learning issue, act. If you are concerned, talk to your child’s doctor or teacher about what you’re seeing. And consider getting an evaluation. The sooner you can identify the cause of your child’s trouble with reading and get the the help they need, the less anxious they will feel.
  • Know the signs of anxiety. Kids can show different symptoms at different ages. Learn what to look for in your child.
  • Keep track. If you are seeing problems arise, be sure to watch how and when they study. Also, when does the anxiety get the worst? By documenting what you see, it will provide better information in problem-solving with those in the school, primary doctors, or other educational professionals.
  • Help your child understand there may be underlying issues. Having severe anxiety or a learning disability is not about laziness or intelligence. Explain to your child that there are strategies they can learn to help them be successful. Encourage them to listen to other kids with similar struggles who’ve found ways to succeed. It can help them know that they are not alone and that there are things they can do to work through difficulties. That may give them a greater sense of control over their academic future.
  • Find the level at which they can succeed, and let they stay there for a while. Encourage your child to read at a level that’s comfortable for them. Don’t rush to move them up to more challenging materials. Give them time to build their confidence in a zone where they feel capable.
  • Help them anticipate and defuse stressful situations. Is tomorrow the day they need to read their book report to the class? Brainstorm strategies that will lessen the stress. Have them  practice reading the book report to you and print out a copy in a large, easy-to-read type. Also tell them you will talk to the teacher about things that can help in school. Perhaps they can record the report and play it in class.
  • Provide alternatives for learning. Your child needs to practice reading and hone their skills. But if that’s not the point of an assignment (for example, learning material in a biology textbook), why make the task even more daunting? If they have an IEP, make sure it provides alternatives. This can include listening to text on audio or watching video presentations. Read about classroom accommodations that can help.
  • Help them to find a way to shine. You know your child is more than just their academics, but they may not always feel that way. Try to identify a special strength in your child. Do your best to cultivate that skill so that they can feel what it’s like to excel in something and be admired for it.
  • Seek out professional help. If your child’s anxiety is preventing them from learning or functioning, speak to a professional about the possibility of an anxiety disorder. If they do have an anxiety disorder, talk to their doctor about treatment options. These could include cognitive behavior therapy and medication.

The more support your child has, the less anxious they will likely be.